- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At t seemingly every turn, visitors can gaze upon contemporary art ranging from quirky to whimsical to daring. This isn’t a typical gallery, though — at this one, you’re invited to spend the night.

The place is 21C Museum Hotel, which combines the comforts of a boutique hotel with an eye-catching collection of edgy works by artists from around the world. Forget about reproduced art. At 21C, the works are originals.

“We don’t use art as decoration here. You’re living with art,” says Steve Wilson, who developed and owns 21C with his wife, Laura Lee Brown, a descendant of the founder of the Louisville-based liquor giant Brown-Forman Corp.

The facility, which opened in early April, features 91 rooms and 9,000 square feet of exhibition space. It’s strategically located just a short stroll from such downtown attractions as the Muhammad Ali Center, the Louisville Slugger Museum at the factory where the famous bats are made, the Louisville Science Center and the Frazier International History Museum. The Kentucky Center for the Arts is down the street, and Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, is just a short drive away.

The hotel’s museum is free for guests and anyone else who wants a peek at avant-garde art. The atrium features 5,000 square feet of exhibition space.

Visitors lingering in the 21C lobby can gaze at statues, paintings and a singing chandelier, which bemuses visitors. Push a button, and the chandelier jiggles as a recording plays of a soprano singing a high-pitched aria. Even a lobby coffee table represents art — inside it is an ever-changing sand-dune sculpture.

“Unlike a museum where you look and leave, here you can go back and really study it again,” says hotel guest Debra Burnham Hyman.

The culmination of a $25 million project that included the restoration of several historic buildings, 21C is the inspiration of Miss Brown and Mr. Wilson, both avid art collectors. Part of their multimillion-dollar collection is on display at the museum, which is run by a foundation the couple formed.

The hotel’s name stands for 21st century, to attest to its cutting-edge feel. As a testament to the museum’s contemporary theme, it will exhibit only the works of living artists, Miss Wilson says.

The museum will have an ongoing series of shows. Coming in the fall is a John Waters exhibit displaying some of the filmmaker’s photography, installations and video work. Hotel guests may want to time their visit to coincide with an appearance by Mr. Walters Nov. 18 at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, supported in part by 21C.

Though the works of such established artists are featured, the museum’s emphasis is on up-and-comers.

“We’re much more interested in great art that comes from people you’ve never heard of — emerging artists that we think could have a career if they had a break,” Mr. Wilson says.

Some works are whimsical — one painting portrays a flock of birds as the hunters instead of the hunted. The birds wear helmets and are armed with weapons. Another picture shows a llama that has been given a trim to resemble a fancy poodle.

Other works delve into darker subjects. One painting shows a young woman dressed in a Nazi-like uniform; one of her eyes is visible, but and the other is undetectable in a shadow. Other works are daring. Perched behind the check-in desk is a series of life-size sculptures of nude children.

“We like to provoke conversation, thought, confrontation, emotion,” Mr. Wilson says of the museum’s works.

The artwork is seemingly everywhere, even in the bathrooms. Human eyes are projected onto mirrors in the main-lobby bathrooms. In actuality, they are the eyes of blind people, offering a message about vanity, Mr. Wilson explains.

“We come in here to adjust everything and look in the mirror to see how we look,” Mr. Wilson notes, “and then you’re confronted with people who can’t see you, and so what does it matter?”

Strolling through the hotel, visitors encounter more art in the hallways and in the guest rooms. “There’s a little surprise everywhere,” Mr. Wilson says.

Each room offers IPods with music customized to fit each guest’s tastes, flat-screen TVs and sterling-silver mint-julep cups. There’s a full exercise facility with a steam room, sauna and spa services. Connected to the hotel is an upscale restaurant, Proof on Main, that also features an array of contemporary art. The hotel also features rooms for business meetings.

Depending on the season, guest rooms start at $199 per night.

Mr. Wilson says some investors have expressed interest in spreading the museum-hotel concept to other cities. He says a business plan is being drawn up that would include the 21C name wherever future hotels might be developed. Among the cities being considered are Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; Sante Fe, N.M.; the Raleigh, N.C. area; and Ann Arbor, Mich.

Miss Hyman, who was in Louisville to attend a board meeting, says the art was thought-provoking and fun. She says it helped create a more enjoyable experience than the “typical chains” where she has stayed during past visits.

“It was incredibly memorable, and I really want to come back to see what eclectic tastes will meet us next time,” she says.

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